How Screening Can Help Vascular Health
Your vascular system is made up of a vast network of blood vessels, including the arteries and veins. To put it simply, arteries carry oxygenated blood away from your heart to all parts of the body where the oxygen is dropped off, and then veins take the de-oxygenated blood back up to the heart. But what happens if something affects this system?
Arteries and Veins
Problems with arteries occur when blood vessels become narrow or clogged, constricting the flow of blood to various parts of the body. The reduced blood flow can be due to a build up of plaque, a substance made up of fat, cholesterol, cellular waste, and other materials that circulate in the blood. This condition is also known as atherosclerosis or “hardening of the arteries.” Risk factors for arterial disease include age, a family history of heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, obesity, and/or a sedentary lifestyle.
Problems with veins occur when your veins are unable to carry blood back to your heart, either because of an obstruction (such as a clot), or due to faulty vein valves. Risk factors for venous disease include age, a family history of venous disease, hormonal influences, environmental risk factors, underlying clotting disorders, and/or damage to vein walls.
Types of Vascular Disease
Peripheral Arterial Disease (P.A.D.) is a common circulatory problem that occurs when arterial blood vessels become narrow or clogged, constricting the flow of blood to the legs. P.A.D. affects 8 to 12 million people in the United States, especially those over 50.
Vascular disease can also affect the carotid arteries – the major arteries in the neck that supply oxygenated blood from the heart to the brain. We use ultrasound to view the inside of the carotid arteries and measure the velocity of the blood flow to determine if there is any plaque buildup. Blockage in the carotid arteries accounts for 75% of strokes.
The aorta is the main artery that supplies blood to the abdomen, pelvis, and legs. An abdominal aortic aneurysm (A.A.A.) occurs when part of the aorta blows up like a balloon. Most patients with A.A.A. – often men over 60 – have no symptoms until rupture, which is usually fatal.
Approximately half of the U.S. population has some form of venous disease, which usually manifests in the lower limbs with symptoms such as aching, heaviness, fatigue, swelling, varicosities, and/or ulcers. It is progressive, but often highly treatable. Healthy veins have valves that open and close to assist the return of blood to the heart. Vein disease occurs when these valves become damaged, allowing the backward flow of blood in the legs where it can pool, leading to a number of health issues.
Catching It Early
Early detection of all vascular disease can be the key to preventing a number of health issues, including those previously discussed. Diagnostic ultrasound is a non-invasive imaging method that uses high-frequency sound waves to look at the blood flow in the major arteries and veins in the limbs. During an ultrasound exam, a water-soluble gel is placed on a handheld device called a transducer, and images are created as the transducer is moved over each area. The results can show if, and to what degree, a blood vessel is blocked.
At my practice, we use ultrasound to “look into” the venous system and see which way the blood is flowing, like a road map for the venous system. Ultrasound mapping shows us if and where a vein valve (or multiple valves) in the legs is damaged. Finding the “source” of the problem is a critical step in establishing where exactly treatment should start.
We also use ultrasound to view and measure the abdominal aorta in order to detect any enlargement. We test for P.A.D. using the Ankle to Brachial Index (ABI). The ABI test compares the blood pressure in the ankle with the blood pressure in the arm.
Finally, the diagnostic screening of the carotid arteries is one of the best methods to detect early atherosclerosis because it correlates with many known risk factors for heart disease.
Dr. Cindy Asbjornsen is the founder of the Vein Healthcare Center in South Portland, Maine. Certified by the American Board of Venous and Lymphatic Medicine, she cares for all levels of venous disease, including spider veins, varicose veins and venous ulcers. She is the only vein specialist in Maine to be named a Fellow by the American College of Phlebology. You can contact Dr. Asbjornsen at 207-221-7799 or: firstname.lastname@example.org.